If you fly, you want Transportation Security Administration screeners to be happy in their jobs. These are the people charged with making sure someone doesn't sneak knives, guns or other contraband aboard planes. Many screeners do what they do out of a sense of duty to country, not for the pay, which starts at about $12.67 an hour at Orlando International Airport.

Unfortunately, many screeners working at OIA are not happy in their jobs. They say the agency is riddled with inept managers who treat the workers badly. They say they've filed numerous complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for discrimination on the basis of age, race or disability, a claim that's impossible to verify because the EEOC doesn't make its records public and TSA management won't talk about the issue. They say favoritism and cronyism are problems, and that morale is at an all-time low.

"It's frustrating. `OIA managers` don't fight fair," says screener Tim Richardson, one of the few willing to go on record; others fear for their jobs. "They don't operate on good faith."

Richardson says bad management has prompted an increase in disciplinary actions and terminations, which in turn has jacked up EEOC complaints and led to widespread discontent, low morale and security concerns. He has his own stories to tell.

Last month Richardson was called into a TSA investigator's office for an inquiry into whether he obtained an e-mail containing screener test scores. He declined to answer questions, he says, because of previous harassment, retaliation and a pending EEOC complaint. Later he complied and answered questions, responding to each with "I don't recall" or "not applicable."

A short time later he made an impromptu stop to look at his personnel file and was asked to sign a typed letter of reprimand for being uncooperative. While there he discovered a complaint that had been filed in his personnel folder without his knowledge.

"It's like a street fight where they're just like, ‘Give me your best shot. What are you going to do?'" Richardson says. "It makes people hit a point where they just don't care anymore and it affects their work."

In July the TSA Orlando office was forced to post an acknowledgement that unlawful retaliation occurred there, as part of an EEOC settlement. The notice states the agency would comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that retaliation would not occur in regard to promotions, assignments, hiring, firing or compensation. The nature of the complaint that prompted the posting remains under wraps.

Perhaps the best indicator of a problem is the number of screeners saying essentially the same thing.

"This hurts security," says screener Rueben Shaw. "If we have management constantly retaliating against screeners, that's going to take the focus off the seriousness of the job."

Shaw was suspended for three months following an allegation that he stole a pilot's wallet. He says he accidentally picked up both his wallet and the pilot's, placing both in his back pocket, after being screened upon arrival at work. He realized the mistake and returned the wallet, he says, but was criticized for taking it to another checkpoint. When police watched a video of the incident, they did not charge Shaw with a crime. Nonetheless, TSA managers suspended him. He has since filed an EEOC complaint.

Shaw, who is black, feels he was discriminated against. "It's just because it's the word of a black man versus a white pilot," he says.

Orlando employment attorney Nancy Johnson represents six TSA screeners, including Richardson. Johnson plans to file federal civil suits on their behalf charging discrimination. She's also represented a handful of other screeners who were able to settle claims out of court.

All of Johnson's TSA clients assert dissatisfaction with the way management handled complaints, and many say they were passed over for promotions because of their age.

"Their motivation is just to get them to stop doing this, and begin treating people fairly — not based on age or friendship," Johnson says. "A lot of them have been passed over for promotions because of age or prior complaints of discrimination. They've lost their seniority, promotions and the additional money they would have been making. Our goal is to get them back where they should be."

Johnson says one of her clients was passed over for a promotion after a bogus reprimand was put in his file. The screener says he heard a manager comment that he "would never let Hispanics get ahead in this company."

The reprimand took him off TSA's best-qualified list, which is used to evaluate who is eligible for promotion. After he complained, he says he began to have problems.

TSA management in Orlando has a different view of the situation than the screeners interviewed for this story.

"I disagree with the premise of the question that there is growing discontent," says Bruce McClary-Davis, staff advisor to federal security director. "Avoiding any acts of discrimination is a constant issue for all government agencies. Unlawful discrimination is covered in the standards of conduct for TSA employees and training is conducted on a continuing basis."

McClary-Davis points to an employee advisory council that works with screeners to solve problems, and notes that there are more than 50 new initiatives in place designed to improve security and morale.

But if membership in the local union that covers screeners is an indication of job dissatisfaction, problems persist. Just over two years ago, the American Federation of Government Employees TSA Local 1 had 34 members. Today they have nearly 300, just less than half of the approximately 800 screeners who work at OIA. "They're signing people up left and right," notes one screener, afraid to identify himself for fear of retaliation. "I've never been a union person, but I needed into this union because screeners have no rights."

"There's so much discontent here," says TSA Local 1 president Donald Thomas. "Policies and the lack of policies have really pushed people to join. Management is blatantly egotistical and there's no one to stop them."

Thomas says he became interested in heading up the union following an incident in which a manager harassed him after he asked about her habit of taking time off without reporting it.

Though TSA workers are federal employees, they do not receive many of the same rights as other Department of Homeland Security agencies, such as FEMA and U.S. Customs. A bill that just cleared Congress would give the union collective bargaining rights — a concession TSA administrators say will harm security — once signed into law. But workers still would not be entitled to many of the same benefits afforded other agencies, like whistleblower protections, veterans' preference, negotiated grievance processes and protection against retaliation for union activities. There are different rules for managers, who reap the full benefits afforded most federal employees.

Maybe that's why the Department of Homeland Security didn't fare well in a survey of federal employees released Jan. 30. Out of 36 federal agencies, DHS scored No. 35 on the leadership and knowledge performance index and No. 36 on the results-oriented performance culture index. DHS didn't do much better when it came to talent management, coming in at No. 33.

Perhaps the most telling was the job satisfaction index. The agency ranked dead last.



More by Deanna Sheffield


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